When my Georgian friend, Nino, was recommending things for me to do, see, and devour in Georgia, exploring the ancient cave city of Vardzia (ვარძია) was at the top of her list. Primarily constructed in the 12th century and the seat of power of the legendary King (Queen!) Tamar, Vardzia was abandoned during the Ottoman takeover and is still in the process of being excavated and preserved. Nino’s mother is from the village just next to the ancient city, so her opinion of the place is one infused with nostalgia, and she made me an incredibly generous offer so I could fully experience her favorite place… She offered to go with me so I could explore Vardzia like a local and have the chance to stay in her mother’s childhood house in the tiny village of Chachkari (ჭაჭკარი).
The Way to Vardzia
Instead of going directly to Vardzia, we decided to travel slowly and visit Borjomi (ბორჯომი) and Akhaltsikhe (ახალციხე) on the way. The first step? Catching the train to Borjomi.
Pro tip: The train from Tbilisi to Borjomi leaves early, departing at 6:40 am from Station Square. As far as I know, you can’t purchase tickets for this train using the app for Georgian Railways, so get to the station early!
The train ride to Borjomi is scenic, but both of us were so tired that we spent the entire time staring vacantly out the window. Our fatigue was only curable by coffee, so our first order of business after disembarking was to find some fresh brews.
The second order of business was Borjomi Central Park and the cable car which takes visitors to the top of the hill behind it. There are separate admission charges for each, but if you take the cable car up and walk down, you can enter the park for free. Just sayin’!
Our next stop was Akhaltsikhe, a city in the southwest of the country home to Rabati Fortress. Visitors might notice a variation from traditional Georgian architecture while exploring the fortress; this is because Rabati was built over an old Georgian fortress by the Ottomans in the 18th century. It’s been wonderfully restored, and visitors can pay to wander the grounds.
By the time we got to Vardzia, it was too late to explore the city. We opted instead to do it the next day, so we could explore to our hearts’ content without having to worry about nightfall.
Interlude: The Village of Chachkari
Down a bumpy country road which follows the river along the cliffs away from Vardzia lies the tiny village of Chachkari. Nino spent a lot of time there when she was young, playing in the surrounding countryside. The homes there are family dwellings, passed down from generation to generation. It’s one of those places where everyone knows everyone else. It seemed like every person from the area knew immediately which family Nino belonged to — even though she hadn’t been around in years.
It was a bittersweet return for her, however, as many of the buildings have fallen into disrepair. Inhabitants have passed away, and newer generations have lost interest. The village is a shadow of what it was. So too is her family’s home — overgrown and rundown from neglect.
From the way she’d described the place, I thought I’d be sleeping on a dirt floor with bugs and rodents crawling all over me. The reality was much cozier than I anticipated — we had electricity and beds! Sure there was a bit of dust over everything, and some droppings from an unidentifiable animal on the floor, but it proved to be a great base for the next several days.
Exploring Vardzia Like a Local
I slept late the next morning, weary from the early start the day before. As a result, we got to Vardzia later than anticipated, and the day had already gotten unbearably hot.
Luckily, cave cities tend to have lots of, well, caves, so we were able to take shelter from the sweltering sun while exploring the ruins of King Tamar’s stronghold. The site — unlike many others in Georgia — escaped destruction by the Mongol hordes and was a place of refuge for locals when Turks came pillaging.
Some parts of the complex are still being excavated and restored, but traces of everyday life can be found sprinkled throughout. Huge qvevri can be spotted in shaded nooks, and an apothecary is even visible if you know where to look. There’s a church as well, with beautiful murals decorating the walls and ceiling, and an icy cool spring deep inside for those lucky enough to be allowed in (perks of knowing a local!). Be sure to dress appropriately, or you won’t be allowed inside the sanctuary.
From inside the church, a tunnel leads through the mountain to a lookout point, giving you a bird’s-eye view of the entire valley. If you’re tall like me, watch your head!
There are a few off-limits areas in Vardzia, including the monks’ living quarters and a few zones either under excavation or too dangerous to enter. Other than that, the site is open to those who’ve paid the 7 GEL admission fee and is pretty safe to explore. There’s even a bathroom in the upper levels of the cave city, and drinking water can be found in the parking area below.
A downside of visiting one of the most popular archeological sites in Georgia is the presence of tour groups, but they are relatively easy to avoid. We took our time and waited for groups to pass, the bustle and clamor fading as they breezed through the hollowed out corridors of the ancient city.
By the time we finished exploring Vardzia, we were ready to chill out for a bit, so we went to Cafe Vardzia down below and spent several hours stuffing ourselves and enjoying the shade. I highly recommend eating there, as the food is FANTASTIC and the prices are incredibly cheap.
Exitlude: Dinner at Vardzia Resort
Across the river from Vardzia is the Vardzia Resort, a swanky place well out of our budget. That said, they happen to have a swimming pool available to non-guests for a small fee, as well as a classy restaurant with some of the tastiest food in the country. After going for a swim in the pool, we sat down to enjoy a meal of local cheeses, adjika ribs, and salad.
We got wine as well, and I caused quite the scene when I took a sip and managed to send a bit of cheese hurtling down my windpipe, causing me to immediately spew my mouthful of wine all over the table, food, and Nino. It was such a violent reaction that I had to excuse myself and puke quietly into the bushes as my body tried to expel the cheese.
You can’t take me anywhere…
We walked back in darkness, with the illuminated cliffside guiding us back across the river. The place takes on a mysterious air at night, when all you can hear is the rustle of the wind and the flow of the river.
We woke up early the next day, catching the marshrutka directly back to Tbilisi. Both of us were worn out from several days of exploring, and we spent the ride nodding off to the jostling of the vehicle as it careened back towards the capital.
As far as last adventures in a country go, it was a good ‘un! Thanks, Nino, for taking me along 🙂
How about you? Have you ever explored a place with a local to guide you? How was the experience? Tell me about it in the comments below!
*All photos of me — Photo credit: Nino*